In one of my favorite promo photos of Bill Mallonee, the acclaimed singer-songwriter sits at the end of a bar with a contented look on his face that belies the struggles and road-weariness that are included in the prize bag given by society to an artist who has embraced the life of a throw-back troubadour. On the bar in front of Mallonee rests an untouched beer. From the photo, I’m guessing that it was an IPA. Based on the thick lacing that rims the top of the glass, the head was full-bodied and aggressive, and the beer had rested just long enough to tease Bill with full-aromas and had possibly brought him to the point where he couldn’t resist any longer. What I love the most about the photo is what undoubtedly came next – Bill probably laughed his poetry as he finally took a sip of that beer; and, then, mesmerizing the photo crew and the bartender, launched into one of his great anecdotes that, if it already hasn’t been, will be shaped into a well-crafted song.
I have had a few beers in my life while listening to Mallonee play, sing, and regale the audience with stories related to his songs, which are stories in and of their baritone-written and guitar-illustrated selves. To be fair, beer accompanies pretty much all of my non-driving activities, but Bill Mallonee and his music paired with beer seems to live in the same realm as that of slippers and warm fireplaces. So, when I received my copy of Winnowing, Bill’s latest album, it didn’t take long for the idea of pairing beer with songs from the album to cultivate in my brain.
How this works – I will pick six tracks from Winnowing and recommend a beer that I believe will pair well with each song. Share Bill Mallonee’s music and the beer with friends. And, of course, please experiment with your own pairings, and pass on the recommendations in the comments below.
The opening song, “Dover Beach (Out in the Cold)” is the contemplation of a man who feels the tension on an autumn tinged beach – there is a comfort in the brisk, cutting wind coming off the water, but that comfort, as much as it rests in the raw and bristling beauty of the autumnal beach, is drawn from the realization that the beach belongs to the summer. On “Dover Beach,” Mallonee’s voice is at its road-weary best; and his songwriting skills, which were honored by Paste Magazine which listed Bill as one of the greatest living songwriters, are at their wide-ranging yet sharp best. This is a song that is going to stand out in Bill’s canon of great songs; and, so, no merely delicious beer will do.
The one and only problem with Hunahpu’s Imperial Stout is that Cigar City brews very little of it, and the beer is released only once a year and only at the Tampa brewery – generally in March. So, good luck finding it. If you do find it, though, you will have the pleasure of being able to enjoy an almost perfect Imperial Stout from a craft brewery that is quickly setting itself apart as the standard among the many great American craft breweries that currently exist. A friend was kind enough to share his hard earned Hunahpu’s Imperial Stout with me, and I’ve been dreaming of the day when I will once again be able to taste the creamy darkness of a beer aged in both apple brandy and rum barrels. “Dover Beach” will help make delicious beers even more delicious, but Hunahpu’s Imperial Stout is one of the few beers that qualify to be on equal footing with a Mallonee masterpiece.
“Old Beat Up Ford”
A raggedly gorgeous testament to what connects us to each other, “Old Beat Up Ford” is a serene song despite its undercurrent of pessimism that threatens to overwhelm the hope. The song is a testament to Mallonee as a storyteller; he understands the tension between the now and the not yet in a way that relegates most singer-songwriter’s efforts to that of tilting at windmills. A steady Americana song, “Old Beat Up Ford” has guitars that move like the tumble weeds of wind-blown American towns.
Craft brewers are often taken with the novel, and many of the craft beers that line the shelves are interesting and tend towards the exotic. I’m thankful for that, but “Old Beat Up Ford” should be paired with a beer that is comfortable and familiar plus flavorful. Among craft beer aficionados, lagers are often sneered at, and that’s unfortunate. The Bruery’s Humulus Lager has the comforting familiarity of the beer that you drank in your youth, but the sturdy flavor that a good beer deserves.
“Got Some Explaining to Do”
“Got Some Explaining to Do” is a rockingly cynical yet good ‘ol fashioned call to arms of the people. The most overtly political song on Winnowing, Mallonee leaves no room for doubt about his opinions of the current political state of affairs, and the direction he believes is correct. The straight up rock guitar licks pair well with the straightforwardness of the song’s thematic unveiling. Only a no-nonsense beer will do for “Got Some Explaining to Do.”
There are very few beers that deliver on promises and expectations as well as North Coast Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout. When Old Rasputin is poured, smelled, and then tasted there is zero doubt about what the brewer was intending. And, there is zero doubt that the brewer succeeded. If you like Stouts, (and why wouldn’t you?) then it’s actually impossible to dislike Old Rasputin from North Coast. If you like pointedly political rock songs, then it’s actually impossible to dislike “Got Some Explaining to Do.”
“Dew Drop Inn”
A romantic and lilting ballad that never devolves into the saccharine, “Dew Drop Inn” may very well have been built in the middle of a gentle wheat field occupied by lovers gazing at the ever changing sky as they lie hand in hand. This is song that reflects the best of the Heartland, and, by extension, all of America. After the cynical political nature of “Got Some Explaining to Do,” Mallonee doesn’t allow us to forget that the power to change lies in Americans that believe that the beauty all around them is worth appreciating and protecting. A song that speaks to the richness of Middle America, both the land and the people, is best listened to while enjoying a beer that utilizes the produce of Middle America.
Bells Oberon Ale is an American wheat beer that takes the classic German Hefe Weizen and grounds it with distinctly American characteristics. Similar to the elegant statement in “Dew Drop Inn,” Oberon Ale has the flavor profile that fits well with the dusty, red-brick structures found on Mid-west main streets, but is deliciously haunted by the ghosts of old-world sensibilities.
“Hall of Mirrors/Room Full of Woes”
Another highlight on a very strong album, “Hall of Mirrors/Room Full of Woes” combines poignant Americana with freighted Rock and Roll. The working class deserves a poet laureate, and Bill Mallonee has staked his claim out frequently enough to justify resting on his laurels; however, “Hall of Mirrors/Room Full of Woes” belongs in the Hall of Fame for Working Class Odes. With lyrics like, “Toil has a face, but she makes no sound,” the struggles of the working class are honestly romanticized on the level of Steinbeck.
The current working class beer of the American craft beer scene is the IPA. The market may be saturated with IPAs, but that doesn’t diminish the value of an excellent example of one. Not only is the Trifecta IPA from Thomas Creek Brewery an excellent example of an IPA, it’s also a collaboration between two small businesses – Thomas Creek, of course, and The Community Tap. Both small town business carving out a niche in Greenville, SC. Very few beers not only reflect the aesthetic standard of Mallonee’s “Hall of Mirrors/Room of Woes” as well his love and admiration for the working men and women of America. So, pour a pint of Thomas Creek Trifecta, lean back, and enjoy both beer and song.
“Now You Know”
Bill Mallonee is a Southern boy that currently finds himself residing in the mysterious high desert of New Mexico. That weighs heavy on “Now You Know,” as Mallonee sings, almost cries, about the rebus of history reflected in nature. “Now You Know” also serves as a confession of sorts; Bill lets the listener behind his mind’s curtain, and admits that he is unable to outrun his demons. History and layered narratives are the story of the day, at least for “Now You Know,” which pushes the beer pairing into the deep current of Belgian Abbey beers.
The Trappistes Rocheforte 6 is a Belgian dubbel that cuts deep into history and culture, and carves a monument to the efforts of commitment. Eschewing the beer purity laws of Germany, the creativity and flavor of Belgian beers flourished over the intervening decades since the 14th century. History, like “Now You Know” and Rocheforte 6, carves out its own space. The sweetness from the malts compliments the spicy layering of Belgian beers, and creates a drinking experience that is grounded in history while transcending traditional beer at the same time.
Americana is grounded in the experience of community – whether that community is as large as a nation, or as intimate as two neighbors sitting on a porch while enjoying beers and conversation. Even if you’re not lucky enough to attend a Bill Mallonee house show, he has released a thoughtful, well-crafted, and beautiful album that rivals the best in any genre, including, of course, Americana. So, buy Winnowing, visit your local craft beer store, invite some good friends over, and enjoy a quintessentially Americana evening.